Friday, May 2, 2014

"Where is everybody?" -- The Fermi Paradox

One day in 1950, conversation among a group of physicists digressed at a lunch table at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. As the discussion facetiously turned to talk of UFOs and flying saucers, renowned particle physicist and mathematician Enrico Fermi abruptly exclaimed, “Where is everybody?” Fermi’s initial intuitions regarding the suspicious lack of extraterrestrial contact have proven to be alarmingly accurate. If the Universe is teeming with life, as has been indicated by current estimates, why has no contact been initiated? As the innovation of our own race continues and technological advancement rapidly progresses, humans will find it more difficult to ignore the silence of the Universe.

Following Fermi’s unexpected consideration, researchers and observers began to formally calculate the odds that such an interaction should occur. The widely known Drake Equation, which was drafted by astronomer and astrophysicist Frank Drake in 1961, provides an approximation of the number of current contactable civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy. . The equation takes into account the average rate of star formation in the galaxy (R*), the fraction of those stars with planets (fp), the average number of planets resembling Earth (ne), the fraction of those planets that could support life (fl), the segment of that portion that supports the emergence of intelligent life (fi), the segment of those civilizations that have the ability to communicate (fc), and the lifetime of such a civilization (L) in a calculation neatly summarized as: N = R* x fp x ne x fl x fi x fc x L. While each factor is extremely variable, implying that the final result should not be considered concrete, the Drake Equation does indicate that the Universe is alarmingly inhabited. Under Drake’s original assumptions, the galaxy maintains upwards of 3,500 independent extraterrestrial civilizations; estimates involving more recent astrobiological and cosmological findings peg the count at more than double original estimations.

Only educated guesses can currently be used to explain the discrepancy between the number of active civilizations and the apparent emptiness of the Universe from Earth’s perspective. Some scientists note that the abundance of life on Earth may not be as common as the Drake Equation indicates. The Rare Earth hypothesis claims that countless elements were involved in the development of Earth’s life; rare conditions, random extinction by the Universe, or self-destructive tendencies might prevent civilizations from progressing far enough technologically to branch outward. The ideal conditions of Earth include not only its perfect distance from the Sun and its abundance of liquid water; the massive gas giant Jupiter prevents frequent and devastating asteroid collisions, plate tectonics replenish invaluable gases in the atmosphere and the Moon ensures a stable orbit. If these fortunate conditions are not met outside the Solar System, life cannot even begin to evolve. Even if ideal circumstances are met, facile and burgeoning life could quickly be eradicated by natural disaster or accidental self-destruction. If civilizations cannot progress technologically, no contact would be established.

If civilizations do exists beyond the bounds of the Solar System, physical constraints might be responsible for the blatant lack of contact; the vast nature of space, limits in transportation technology, and unfeasible time constraints might also erect barriers between distant inhabited systems. The massive size of the galaxy and the monetary and time limitations introduced as a result might simply be too substantial. Finally and most alarmingly, Earth could remain isolated intentionally; if a more advanced life form observes or manipulates the planet, extraterrestrial contact might be completely prevented. The eerily titled Zoo Hypothesis speculates that an advanced extraterrestrial life form deliberately interacts with or manipulates the developments of civilization on Earth. More intangibly, the human race could be the product of an immensely advanced computer simulation constructed by a technologically advanced life form. If either of these cases proves correct, Earth is being intentionally quarantined.

The likelihood of interacting with another civilization is unquestionably high; however, since Earth remains isolated in the Universe, scientists, observers, and amateurs are forced to speculate solutions to Fermi’s Paradox. As technology on Earth improves and we remain alone, the alarming nature of the Fermi Paradox will only increase. If Earth does prove to be the only body supporting advanced civilization in the Universe, an immense burden is placed upon the human race to survive and expand.
Laura Gunsalus


Discovered in 1930, Pluto was classified as a planet for over seventy years until the International Astronomical Union redefined the term “planet” and reclassified Pluto as a dwarf planet. The new definition was sparked by the fact that new bodies in the solar system were found that were similar to Pluto. Once Pluto was demoted, astronomers and citizens had varied reactions to the change. Even though Pluto is no longer considered one of the main planets, NASA launched their first mission to Pluto, New Horizons, in 2006.

Pluto was discovered during the search for “Planet X,” a planet further into space than Neptune that was disturbing Uranus’s orbit. The search began in 2006 by Percival Lowell and William H. Pickering. Once Lowell died in 1916, the search was put on pause until it was given to Clyde Tombaugh, a self-taught astronomer from Kansas. Tombaugh discovered Pluto by chance while looking at images of the sky taken on January 23, 1930 and January 29, 1930 and seeing if objects in the picture had moved. The discovery was officially announced on March 13, 1930 and Pluto was officially named on March 24, 1930. The name Pluto was chosen because Pluto was the god of the underworld in mythology and Pluto was thought to be dark and cold. The name was also chosen since the first two letters of “Pluto” are Percival Lowell’s initials. 

However, in more recent years, several other celestial bodies were found that made astronomers skeptical about how special Pluto was. The other bodies discovered were Ceres, Haumea, Eris, and Makemake, now all considered dwarf planets. These discoveries made the International Astronomical Union (IAU) rethink what a planet was. The original proposal suggested a Solar System that consisted of twelve planets: the original nine plus Ceres, Eris, and Charon. The IAU defined a planet as “a celestial body that (a) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (b) is in orbit around a star, and is neither a star nor a satellite of a planet.” This proposal became controversial among astronomers since it could eventually mean that they would have to classify many more objects as planets. The proposal remained controversial until the IAU meeting in August 2006.

At the 26th General Assembly for the International Astronomical Union, the main topics being debated were the issues about Pluto. In the end, two resolutions pertaining to Pluto were passed: Resolution 5A “Definition of a ‘planet’” and Resolution 6A: “Definition of Pluto-class objects.” The IAU finally defined a planet as a “celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.” Together, these resolutions demoted Pluto to being a dwarf planet and also made Ceres, Haumea, Eris, and Makemake dwarf planets as well.

Once this decision was made, the media was filled with reactions about the new classification. Astronomers had very mixed reactions, as many believed that the new definition was unclear and not well defined. Other astronomers, however, believed that this definition was consistent with science and that it would be a definition that lasts. Some astronomers were very indifferent about the situation, believing that the outcome did not affect them one way or another. Citizens also had varying reactions. Some science teachers believed that this change was a good thing for their classrooms, since science is always changing. Other people rejected the new definition, saying that they will always believe that Pluto is a planet. Several states passed resolutions in honor of Pluto: New Mexico declaring that Pluto will always be a planet when in the New Mexican skies and both New Mexico and Illinois stating that March 13 is Pluto Planet Day. While the reactions varied, it still remains that Pluto is no longer a planet. 

NASA still wanted to explore this region of outer space, and so in January 2006, they launched New Horizons, the one-way mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. The goals of the mission are to explore and learn more about Pluto and Charon and then travel deeper into the Kuiper Belt to investigate at least one more Kuiper Belt Object. In February 2007, the spacecraft passed Jupiter and it is expected to reach Pluto in July 2015.
Emily Helfer

Importance of Astronomy

One of the major questions regarding astronomy in the modern age is its importance and relevance to society. At first glance it may appear as if astronomy is purely an informational science with no tangible use within society. However this is not the case, although astronomy may not directly affect our society in the way that fields such as engineering disciplines do, it is clear that astronomy has actually catalyzed the growth of other major fields. This overlap between astronomy and an array of other fields is the reason for why astronomy is becoming increasingly important within our society.

One example of this can be seen with astronomical inventions. For example, in many smartphones, the camera is powered by a CCD, a device originally developed for imaging of the universe. In addition, FedEx uses a programming language known as FORTH to track packages, a language originally developed for the telescope on Kitt Peak. More examples include AT&T and their use of IRAF, Image Reduction and Analysis Facility, and even Kodak film originally used by astronomers studying the sun, which is currently used by medical professionals, artists, and photographers. From these examples, it is clear that astronomy extends past the sky and into the lives of normal civilians more directly. With the integration of astronomical discoveries into these industries, it has led to powerful technology in the hands of normal citizens through enhanced imaging in smartphones and even improvements in the field of shipping and delivery. However, holistically, it can be seen that improvements in the field of astronomy has indirectly led to the improvement of multiple fields that have contributed to the growth of the modern era.

In another outlet, astronomy has also affected fields such as medicine and energy, two fields that have also exploded in growth in the modern era and are currently considered pivotal to the continuing growth of humankind. In terms of the field of medicine, astronomers suffered a similar problem that medical professionals faced, that is, detection of increasingly faint objects. However through aperture synthesis, a process of creating a single image through multiple telescopes used by radio astronomers has led to the creation of CAT scanners and MRI’s, tools vital to finding and treating diseases. Energy-wise, applications of astronomical technology can be seen with the pursuit of creating man-made fusion through monitoring collisions, petroleum research around oil fields, and even the creation of larger solar energy panels. Overall, similar to the applications of astronomical technology in industrial fields, the integration of technology in these fields is also pivotal to the future growth of humanity due to our reliance on new forms of energy, and our need to combat rapidly evolving bacteria and viruses through medicine.

Finally, astronomy has shown vital to international collaboration among nations. It is clear that nations pride themselves on having the most efficient new technologies and race to achieve new discoveries. However more importantly, this pursuit of knowledge encourages collaboration among nations and creates a constant flow of researchers in international facilities. With expensive costs of creating new observatories, ownership usually consists of several nations. So far, all of these collaborations have been successful such as the ALMA, Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array, the largest partnership in existence, the ESO, the European Southern Observatory, and even more simple partnerships such as the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope between the US and Europe. International collaboration is pivotal to the expansion of humankind since it promotes peace and mutual advancement of science and inevitably deters conflict. Although this is not a direct overlap of technology such as the previous examples it is easy to understand the importance of international collaboration and how astronomy is able to bring nations closer together.

When you consider the indirect effects of astronomy on different fields of science, it is clear as to why astronomy is important to our society in ways other than obtaining information about our Universe. Although there may be a notion that astronomy is not helpful toward society, astronomy has shown ability in propelling other fields that shape this modern age. Ranging from medicine to industry, I believe that astronomy should grow unhindered because of its dual-utility in both pure knowledge through actual data collection and its positive externality upon various fields that will continue to power the modern age.
Justin Kim


Astrology is merely based on conjectures. We cannot provide any hypothesis for it, and nor does it have falsifiability. As a result, it sometimes has been regarded less as a science, but rather as a mere belief. However, sometimes people are stunned to find out how accurate astrology can be with regard to a human’s life. In fact, the world’s first billionaire, J. P. Morgan once said, “Millionaires don’t use astrology. Billionaires do.” Before I start explain astrology, there is an astonishing fact that we must understand: Real astrology is rooted in precise mathematics and a tradition that goes back thousands of years!

Regarding the logic behind astrology, first, the horoscopes we read every day in newspapers are not anyone’s horoscopes specifically. In other words, they are garbage! They are useless and any correct predictions are no more than mere coincidences. True astrology is far more complicated. One’s astrology reading is based on one’s birth date, location, and specific time, so it is unique to every individual. A major part of astrological readings are dependent upon the position of the Sun. However, in addition to the Sun, the sign and house placements of all eight planets and the Moon must be taken into account along with how they connect and interact with each other. Therefore, an astrologer’s job is to translate the vast amount of information from one’s horoscope to human languages, which is, though contrary to what many think, much more complicated than what a fake fortune-teller does!

Secondly, astrologers are not saying that planets are somehow affecting our lives here on the Earth. In other words, astrology is not about how planets directly influence people as we think; rather, it is an explanation how our life will be based on the horoscope, the positions of the planets. In astrology, the planets are symbolic of energies that are within us, with each planet relating to a different aspect of our nature. Thus, a horoscope is more like a person’s energetic map, and different energies are what important to build a person’s personality.

In order to understand how planets in space can help explain our own life, there is an important conceptual idea that needs to be introduced. Everything in the Universe is connected and interactive with each other. Things that happen on a macro-scale—planetary movements—can be reflected on a micro-scale—one individual’s life. According to astrologer Carl Jung, this connection between things is called “synchronicity,” which he explains thus: “whatever is born or done at this particular moment of time, has the quality of this moment of time.” Consider a clock, the hands on the clock reflect the time, but they do not cause time to advance. Similarly, a horoscope, or a planet’s position, reflect one’s life, but is not the reason to cause one’s life to play out a certain way.

While astrology contains some science in it, it does not function by purely scientific methods. There has been, and will always be, a mysterious part that cannot be understood by the logical mind because one’s mind is a part of the whole. The ultimate truths cannot be explained; rather, it can only be experienced. This is also why astrology cannot be computer programmed. Two different astrologers can interpret the same horoscope completely differently. Thus one might say, how can it be useful without objective truth? That is astrology’s true beauty: it does not have an objective reality. Astrology helps explain why we experience the world in a certain way, but it does not cause the experience, so it does not have to have an ultimate truth. Various people view horoscopes and exploit them differently. It is not necessary to believe in every detail in a single horoscope explanation to be helped by it. We just need to be open-minded about astrology. Astrology really comes in handy when we need a psychological guide. Sometimes people need some kind of explanation for unexplained incidences happening in their life, and astrology would be a powerful source in this situation.
Yitian Feng


Humans have long pondered the question of how life on Earth came to be. How did the vast diversity of life we know today begin out of the atoms and molecules present on early Earth? There are a number of theories that aim to explain how this might have occurred, but one theory stands out from the rest, the idea that the seed of life came from outer space; the theory of panspermia.

How could this be possible? If humans can’t survive in outer space without an enormous amount of specialized equipment, how could primitive life? When most people think of life, they think of people, mammals, fish, insects, or plants, things that require sunlight and water for survival. Not all life fits into this category, though. Some organisms thrive in incredibly hot springs, deep-sea vents with no sunlight, and even highly acidic environments. These organisms are called extremophiles. If life can exist in such extreme conditions on Earth, maybe it could survive the harsh conditions of other planets or even a trip on an asteroid. It’s possible that life didn’t arise on Earth at all. Maybe it came from space.

Panspermia proposes that early life was ejected from other planets by collisions with asteroids, meteoroids, or comets. Life is believed to have developed billions of years ago during the period on Earth called the Late Heavy Bombardment where the planet was being impacted very frequently by asteroids and other Solar System bodies. If primitive life existed on Earth during this time, it would likely have been repeatedly sterilized by these collisions. Scientists who favor the panspermia theory use this as evidence that life must have first developed somewhere outside Earth and was then delivered to it by one of these impacts.

Another piece of evidence for the panspermia theory is the Murchison meteorite. It landed in Australia in 1969 and after being examined was shown to contain an abundance of amino acids and other organic material, material essential in forming life. Other experiments show that these amino acids are indeed capable of withstanding the pressures of an asteroid impact and that these unique conditions could have even caused them to form peptides, which form proteins, which are essential to the formation of cells.

Panspermia doesn’t have all the answers to the question of where life came from, though. It still doesn’t solve the problem of how life came to be from organic material, it just pushes that problem to another planet somewhere else in space. Even so, it’s exciting to think that maybe we aren’t the only life in the universe, even if it only exists in the form of tiny microbes. If the seeds of life are, or were at one point, shooting around space, it seems possible that they could have crashed into some planet out there quite a bit similar to Earth. Maybe that life grew and evolved to be something quite a bit similar to the beautiful array of life we have here on Earth.
Clare Isaacson

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Solar Eclipses

Solar eclipses have been documented throughout history as peculiar natural phenomena. One can easily imagine how confused and alarmed people in the past were when the Sun unexpectedly disappeared. As a line from Homer’s The Odyssey stated, “The Sun has perished out of heaven, and an evil mist has overspread the world,” with a time of doom being prophesied for Earth. Eclipses were strange happenings that greatly frightened the public.

As technology advanced and research was further developed, scientists were able to extensively examine these special events. These rare episodes occur when the Moon aligns between the Sun and Earth, blocking the Sun’s light and creating a shadow on the Earth. During an eclipse, the day turns into night. In partial and annular eclipses, only part of the Sun is blocked, but in a total eclipse, the entire disk of the Sun is covered by the Moon. Although the process of a total eclipse takes about an hour, the state of totality lasts for at most seven and a half minutes. The only part of the Sun that is visible to the human eye is its corona, which is the normally unnoticed outer atmosphere that shines in the darkness. As the Sun begins to reappear, the diamond ring effect takes place, which is associated with the phenomenon of Baily’s beads. In approximately an hour, daylight is reestablished.

Total eclipses are fascinating phenomena that many people want to experience. Unfortunately, these only happen during a new Moon phase, which is when the Moon moves to the side of Earth facing the Sun. Because the Moon orbits Earth at an angle of 5 degrees relative to the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, the three spheres only align periodically. During a solar eclipse, the line of nodes, which is the intersection of the orbital planes, points to the Sun and the Moon lies on that line. Having both occur at the same time accounts for the rarity of solar eclipses. Total eclipses occur every one or two years, but because they are only visible from a small area on Earth, the chance of experiencing a total eclipse is less than once in a lifetime.

The second type of solar eclipse, the annular eclipse, occurs when the Moon’s orbit carries it too far from Earth that it cannot completely block the Sun. From Earth, this eclipse appears as a blackened circle surrounded by sunlight. Total and partial eclipses together average about two and a half occurrences per year. 

On Tuesday April 29, 2014, a partial solar eclipse took place. As the first solar eclipse of the year, it transformed the Sun into what is popularly known as, the “ring of fire.” It was classified as a non-central annular eclipse, a rare event, because the central axis of the Moon’s shadow missed Earth entirely while the shadow’s edge just barely grazed the planet. The Moon crossed the Sun’s disk at 3 in the morning in Australian time. The next eclipse that will be visible in Pittsburgh is estimated to be on October 8, 2014.
Clara Lee

Friday, April 25, 2014

Public and Private Efforts Towards a Mission to Mars

In the past decade, organizations varying from governmental institutions to private organizations have been making moves towards planning and executing a manned mission to Mars. These moves seem to be a growing trend in recent years to make space exploration a collective, worldwide effort.

One such private mission that has garnered widespread attention from the media is known as Mars One. Mars One is a private Netherlands-based non-profit organization that has put forward conceptual plans to establish a permanent human colony on Mars by 2025. The organization intends to send a 4-man mission to the Red Planet at the cost of $6 billion. Despite the outright evidence that shows the health-risks of a potential mission to Mars on human health, 200,000 people have applied to be one of several people to travel to and live on Mars as part of the Mars One mission. Out of those 200,000 people, 1058 people have been put on a “short-list” by the organization. These 200,000 applicants have acknowledged another stipulation of the trip: it is one-way. Those short-listed reflect excitement and optimism about the mission despite that fact, as can be expected. An Israeli man who was shortlisted stated that, despite that fact, the “one thought that keeps him going is ‘about humanity after people landed on the moon. How it inspired everything from science to arts to everything on Earth was deeply influenced by it. I think about what landing on Mars will do to life here.’”1

Aside from private organizations, the government of Britain has made statements demonstrating the intent to send a manned mission to Mars. According to a December 2013 article in the Telegraph, “Britain wants to help build [both] a moon base and send a manned mission to Mars within three decades,” according to Britain’s science minister David Willetts. Willetts emphasized that worldwide cooperation would both be ideal and the most effective method: “if you got the major powers – if you got the Europeans, the Americans and the Chinese working together – [this] is possible.”2 As for the Americans, specifically NASA, no plans for a government-sponsored mission have been outlined as of yet. NASA has made plans to send another rover in 2020, however. This may be because NASA has gauged the economic costs and health risks associated with a manned mission and does not wish to undertake that kind of risk. This reflects how the US is perhaps staying away from international efforts towards space exploration, but that is just speculation on my part.

The idea of making space exploration is appealing to me. In my opinion space exploration in any regard should be a collaborative effort on many fronts, rather than the plans of one nation. I believe Britain is going in the right direction with their statements and intentions. In addition, private organizations in this field are by nature international at least in some regard. As such thus it is clear that we are making moves towards making space exploration a worldwide public effort. A mission to Mars provides such a platform for this collaboration.
Nathaniel Benzaquen-Ouakrat

1Rosen, B. (2014, Jan 22). Israeli shortlisted to travel to mars for reality show. Nadav Neuman one of 1,058 finalists for 24-person colony on red planet. Jerusalem Post. Retrieved from

2Hope, Christopher. “Science Minister David Willetts: Britain can help build a moon base and send a manned mission to Mars.” 10 Dec 2013. Telegraph. Web. 24 April 2014.